Diesel power remained a faint blip on the U.S. auto industry’s radar screen in 2015, its market share unable to reach 5% amid stubbornly cheap gasoline and the self-inflicted black eye Volkswagen suffered by fudging emissions-test results.
Largely accounting for that point of light were the suburban cowboys and cowgirls and their country cousins who cottoned to the idea of diesel-driven pickup trucks.
All three diesel entries in the 2016 Wards 10 Best Engines were in pickups: the 3.0L V-6 in the Ram 1500, a 2-time winner; the 2.8L I-4 in the Chevrolet Colorado (and its GMC Canyon fraternal twin); and the 5.0L V-8 in the re-engineered Nissan Titan XD. The Ram wins for a third straight time.
However, for all their technical refinements, diesels, along with other alternative powertrains such as hybrids, plug-in hybrids and electrics, remain eclipsed by sustained low gasoline prices.
Consistently costlier than gas since about 2010, diesel prices matched those of gas for a few weeks in early summer – not long enough to influence showroom traffic – before gas took a sharper downward turn. The average national price of a gallon of regular gas in early December was $2.05 to $2.38 for diesel, according to the U.S. Energy Dept.
One consequence: a lackluster 1.1% take rate for the 2.0L 4-cyl. turbodiesel in the Chevrolet Cruze, a 2014 10 Best Engines winner, in the first half of the ’15 model year.
Diesels with take rates in double digits included the BMW X5 CUV, Ford Transit large van and, notably, the EcoDiesel in the comparatively high-volume Ram 1500 with a robust 14.4%, according to WardsAuto estimates.
General Motors is hoping for higher volume when it launches a new 1.6L diesel 4-cyl. in the redesigned Cruze in 2017.
Customer feedback indicates the EcoDiesel’s smoothness, torque and fuel efficiency outweigh the 1500’s higher price, say Fiat Chrysler executives slightly surprised by the Ram’s sales numbers. It’s a formula Nissan seeks to replicate with the twin-turbo V-8 crafted by diesel specialist Cummins for the ’16 Titan XD fullsize pickup, as does GM with the Colorado and Canyon midsize pickups that launched in early 2014.
Sales of diesel-powered light vehicles in the U.S. totaled 695,803 in 2014, in fact a 5.7% decline from 737,787 prior-year, according to WardsAuto data. But an industry group, the Diesel Power Forum, predicts a solid 2015, citing the pickup rollouts and aggressive marketing by Volkswagen – albeit marketing that morphed instantly into damage control as the emissions scandal unfolded.
Sales of Volkswagen-brand models fell 4.8% year-on-year from January through November, WardsAuto data shows, then skidded 32.9% in November, the first full month of emissions fallout for Wolfsburg.
But between improving fuel economy taking the edge off the diesel price premium, and the brawn Americans need, or at least want to project, look for the U.S. pickup segment to burn more oil than ever.